WASHINGTON — Nearing midnight on March 21, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's cell phone vibrated in his pocket.
It was a congratulatory call from President Barrack Obama, whose inauguration 14 months earlier Clyburn had hailed as vindicating the vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Obama was calling to thank the Columbia Democrat for shepherding the historic health care bill through the House of Representatives shortly before lawmakers passed it in a 219-212 vote, with no Republican support.
"He said this would be a huge benefit to the country, and he thanked me for playing such a critical role in getting it done," Clyburn told McClatchy.
For Clyburn, the vote extending medical coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans — and the months of bitter debate before it — show why his job as the House Democrats' chief head-counter has gotten harder, not easier, since Obama took office.
No longer do Democratic lawmakers enjoy the political luxury of casting largely symbolic votes on bills they know are headed for a presidential veto, as they did when Republican George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office.
Now, with a fellow Democrat in the White House, Clyburn is whipping votes that matter more because their outcomes will impact Americans' everyday lives.
A good example was the Feb. 4, 2009 passage of a less-heralded measure funding health care for an additional 4 million children across the country, including more than 60,000 in South Carolina.
The Democratic-controlled Congress had passed similar expansions of the SCHIP program twice on party-line votes, but Bush had vetoed the bills both times.
"In some respects, it's been more difficult," Clyburn said of his job since Obama took office. "When you're trying to do legislation you know the president will sign, it's a totally different game."
Before hosting the visiting mayor of Jerusalem on a busy day last week, Clyburn sat in his leadership office in the U.S. Capitol, with its expansive westward view of the National Mall and the Washington Monument.
The same large window was covered by a huge American flag on Jan. 20, 2009, as Obama took the oath of office beneath it with Clyburn and other dignitaries sitting behind him on the Capitol's West Portico.
Clyburn, 69, firmly rebuts Republican lawmakers' insistence that the next set of elections, in November, will be a referendum on what they deride as "the government takeover of health care."
Cheered by news that the economy had grown at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the year's first quarter, Clyburn said the emerging improvements in voters' lives will limit expected Democratic losses in Congress.
"I do believe that the economy is rebounding very well," he said. "For all intents and purposes, the recession is over."
The voting, Clyburn believes, will follow the historical precedent of the opposition party gaining seats in a president's first mid-term elections. But he said GOP operatives — and some political analysts — who are predicting a Democratic debacle will be disappointed.
"Tradition will prevail, we'll lose some seats, but I think we've in very good shape," Clyburn said. "I think we're going to still be in the majority after the November elections. The only way that will change is if the current economic trajectory changes."
A "big sleeper" in the elections, Clyburn said, will be the expanded Pell grants and other increased college funding that was wrapped into the health care measure in order to pick up wavering lawmakers' votes.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying "I depend on him every day," said Clyburn is respected and trusted by his Democratic House peers.
"He's a rock in terms of calmness under pressure and clarity in his thinking," she told McClatchy. "He's very passionate in his concern about economic and social justice, but he's very dispassionate in how he makes decisions."
Pelosi added: "He has the ardor, but he also has the coolness."
As he seeks election to his 10th House term, Clyburn faces Democratic primary opposition back home for just the third time.
Gregory Brown, a Columbia telecommunications businessman, is challenging Clyburn in the June 8 primary in the military veteran's first bid for elective office.
Brown, 49, said he's a lifelong Democrat who voted for Obama and has also cast ballots for Clyburn. But the Hopkins native said Clyburn's expanded national profile as the No. 3 House Democrat has distracted him from helping his 6th Congressional District.
"Most of the 6th District is rural, and rural South Carolina is dead last in the country in graduating less than 40 percent of its high school students," Brown said.
"The unemployment rates in most of the counties in (Clyburn's) district are higher than the state and national unemployment rates," he said.
Brown pointed to a federal government Web site, www.usaspending.gov, as providing proof that Clyburn has neglected his district.
Among the 435 House members, Clyburn ranks 210th in the amount of federal funds that have gone to his district since 2004, with a total of almost $2.4 billion, according to usaspending.gov.
But the website can be misleading because it implies — or can be used by political operatives to imply — that lawmakers help secure funding for all federal facilities and projects based in their districts.
The same website puts Republican Rep. Gresham Barrett at No. 103, largely because the Savannah River Site, which has received billions of dollars in federal funds, is in his 3rd Congressional District.
Clyburn scoffed at Brown's claim, noting that he's chiefly responsible for helping steer money from Washington to the giant nuclear weapons complex in Aiken County.
"I brought $1.6 billion to SRS in one fell swoop" in last year's economic-stimulus bill, Clyburn said. "I earmarked it. Many of the people who work there live in my district."
Thanks to the clout from his leadership post, Clyburn said, he views himself more as a senator with statewide responsibilities than as a House member representing a single district.
"If I'm in a position to help the state of South Carolina, that's what I do," Clyburn said. "I don't limit my efforts to my district. That would be pretty foolhardy."
Clyburn said he led efforts to include $2 billion in the stimulus measure, which Obama signed into law in February 2009, for community health centers nationwide.
"I sat with the president when he coughed up that money," Clyburn said. "About $7.2 million went to the Beaufort-Jasper-(Hampton) health care centers. That's in (Rep.) Joe Wilson's district, not mine. Another $4.6 million went to the Little River Medical Center. That's in Henry Brown's district."
Clyburn added: "Both those districts got the money because I put it in the stimulus package."
Though Clyburn said he's not taking his re-election for granted, the numbers suggest otherwise.
Despite giving $2.5 million to other Democratic candidates so far in the 2009-10 campaign, directly or through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Clyburn had more than $1.4 million in cash on hand through March, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Brown raised no money, according to the FEC. The candidate said Monday he recently filed campaign documents with the election agency.
"We've got about $3,000 on hand, and we've probably put about $40,000 in" to the campaign, Brown said.
Beyond his huge fundraising advantage, Clyburn has history on his side: Neither of his two previous primary opponents gained more than 17 percent of the vote.
Clyburn is happy to run as the man who played a big role in pushing the landmark health care bill through Congress.
"I've had some, I think, remarkable achievements by any standard," he said. "But getting health care done, especially against the kinds of odds we faced, has got to be considered my crowning achievement."